Chapter 15: Prisoner of fate
Copyright © 2018 by Brian Bixby
I wake up and open my eyes and see fire. I roll over onto my back, and see an unfinished ceiling. I turn back, and realize I am looking into a fireplace. There is a thick rug underneath me. I am in someone’s home.
I sit up to look around. The walls are unfinished, too. Household items are hanging from hooks in the walls. There is furniture. It looks wrong, somehow. So do the people in it.
I shake my head to clear it. Sitting facing the fire are a woman and a man. The man is the hunter, I think. The woman is middle-aged in appearance. Both are short, shorter than me, even. They are a bit squat and quite muscular. They are solid. They must be dwarves.
“Hi,” I say. I am not the soul of wit on such occasions.
The woman leans forward. “How’s your leg?”
I look at my left leg. It’s been bandaged. I flex it a bit. “It feels OK. Thanks.”
She smiles and sits back. “Why did you come down out of the tree? Did you want to be eaten by the panther?”
Good question. Here’s an honest answer. “I don’t know. I was confused, somehow.”
The man looks over to the woman and says, “See? I told you. Them panthers have venom in their claws, gets into the minds of their prey, and their prey just deliver themselves over to be killed. You should have seen her, coming down the tree, looking at the panther as if it were her bestest friend.” He sits back, a satisfied man. I guess winning an argument is as enjoyable for dwarves as anyone else. I’ll bet these two are married.
I tell him, “I have to thank you for saving me.”
He smiles. “No, you don’t. I wouldn’t have a panther hide and meat if I hadn’t heard that panther growling. Funny thing, that. I’ve never seen them circle a tree like that. Usually they just wait at the bottom or leave.”
Lucky me. I stand up, testing the bandaged leg, find there’s nothing wrong with it, and stretch a bit.
The man asks, “What were you doing there, anyhow? You’re kind of far from home, ain’t you?”
That causes me to smile. “Farther than you think. I was planning to go into town to see a … um, what do you call yourselves?”
“Dwarves will do. Shairen, if you want to impress us. You picked an odd way to get there.”
“I don’t know the area well.”
“Then you’ll have trouble finding the person you’re looking for. This person got a name?”
Hope he’s not famous as a mass murderer. “Theobald Smith.”
The two of them start laughing. In between chuckles, the man says to me, “I don’t think you’ll have much trouble finding him.”
The woman stretches over and lightly slaps the man on his arm. “Didn’t Lord Theobald used to play around with some goddess who came over from the other side?”
The man thinks a bit. “Yeah, him and his brother and some others. But that was a long time ago.” He looks over at me. “You know anything about that?”
“It was probably my mother. Theobald is my father.”
The man chuckles. “Well, isn’t Theobald in for a surprise! And him a married man these days. Tell you what, I can take you into town tomorrow to see him. He ought to treat you right. You’re not the first bastard he’s fathered.” He looks over to the woman. “Lord Theobald ought to appreciate the service. Might even reward us.”
“That he might,” she replies.
Their names turn out to be Devlin and Bertha, and they are indeed married. I end up sleeping by the fire. They let me sleep until mid-morning, wake me up, serve me a big breakfast of bacon and eggs, and then Devlin takes me to see Lord Theobald.
Their house is actually on the edge of town, so we don’t have to walk far. Apart from being built by and for dwarves, and therefore looking oddly proportioned, the town looks like a cross between medieval England and 19th century New England. All the traffic on the streets is either on foot, horseback, or on unicycles.
Theobald Smith is now an earl, which is why he is called “Lord.” Devlin doesn’t explain why or how that happened. He lives in the king’s palace, which turns out to be the largest building in the town, made of a mix of stone and brick. We get stopped at an entrance, our identity and business recorded, and we get to sit in a waiting room for about an hour and a half with several other dwarves.
Waiting rooms everywhere are boring. While I’m waiting, I look at the others in the room. All of the dwarves have skin and hair that are shades of brown. There is enough variation in shades, and in their features, that the effect is not monotonous. I ask Devlin whether there are races among the Shairen. I have to explain what races are among the humans before I can get an answer, and that’s because they don’t have the concept. Nor the greater range of coloring humans have. They’re all pretty much brown. As Devlin says, “What would you expect from a race that spent the last few millennia underground most of the time?”
A dwarf captain of the guard arrives with four soldiers, and requests that I accompany him to see Lord Theobald. I follow him out into the corridor to its end and down a staircase. The moment my foot hits the basement floor, the guards grab me, carry me down the hall, and chain me up in a cell. No one answers my questions, pays attention to my protests, or responds to my screams.
Once I get over my surprise, I take stock of my situation. My room is a bit better than I imagine a medieval dungeon would be. It’s actually clean, with tile floors, walls, and ceiling. There is even a porcelain toilet and bidet in one corner. Devlin said something about the dwarves having a lot of metal workers. Nice to know adequate plumbing is among their skills.
I’m wearing heavy manacles on my arms and legs. They are connected to chains that are anchored in the floor. The chains allow me to walk halfway across the room. Thankfully, that includes the toilet and bidet. It does not include the door. There is a single overhead incandescent light bulb illuminating the room. There are no windows, except for the large one cut in the door. That one has bars on it.
I’m not getting out of here in any hurry. It’s not like there is a dwarf lawyer out there filing a writ of habeas corpus for me. At least I won’t have to piss myself or stink up a remote corner of the room if I stay here very long.
I spend my time speculating about what must have gone wrong. Obvious guess: Lord Theobald is ashamed to acknowledge my existence. Or maybe he recently engaged in a political intrigue and is imprisoned himself. Or maybe the dwarves and Exiled gods here are at war. Whatever. I don’t think Devlin’s going to get the reward he hoped for.
Realistically, I have to stay here until I find out just what is going on, even if I have a chance of escaping. What bothers me is that the clock is ticking back in the normal world. I’ve spent most of my time so far hiding in a tree, being lugged home by a dwarf, sleeping, and now I’m in prison. I think if I could tell Vesta Fox about this, she’d say that she underestimated how much could go wrong.
Only about an hour or two later, I hear the sound of several feet coming down the corridor outside. The door is unlocked, and six people enter the room. Four are dwarf guards, one is a female humanoid of a type I’ve never seen or heard of, maybe eight feet tall with gray skin, red eyes, and black hair. And one is a male dwarf in a really fancy outfit, colorful blue doublet and breeches. He looks something like me.
He bows. “Daphne Vane, daughter of Cynthia Vane, I presume?”
I would try to curtsey, but I’m wearing jeans, so I just bow back. “Theobald Smith, I presume?”
He smiles. “Lord Theobald is more appropriate, but I imagine your patience has already been tried, so I will not insist. What brings you here?”
“I’m here to ask you to help me by temporarily returning to the normal world and testifying that you are my father,” I tell him.
He doesn’t reply immediately. Instead, he comes closer, until we are scarcely two feet apart. He looks me over a bit. Then he steps back again until he’s maybe ten feet away. “What you ask may be a bit harder to manage than you think. First, there must be a test.”
Okay, total stranger arrives and says she’s your daughter. I can see that. “Fine, what do I have to do to prove who I am?”
Theobald presses his lips together before replying. “You do not have to do anything, Daphne. Allia will do everything.” And with that, he abruptly turns on his heels and walks out of the cell. The guards accompany him. The door is closed. I see Theobald looking in through its window.
The tall humanoid hasn’t moved. This is presumably Allia. I look up at her face. “What happens next?”
She looks at me with those red eyes as if she is trying to figure out something about me. At least it’s not a hostile stare. She points and says, “Take five steps backward.” So I do. She steps forward until she is directly in front of me. She kneels down, pulls out a small leather sack, looks up at me with an unhappy expression on her face, and says, “I’m sorry.” And then she pours the contents of the sack on the floor directly in front of me. The instant she is finished, she stands up and steps all the way back to the opposite wall, out of my range, keeping her eye on me the whole time. She’s back to that quizzical look of hers.
I look down at the small pile in front of me. It looks like some sort of herb. What is it, poison? That would explain Allia’s actions, sort of, though not really. I take a step back from it, but as I do, I catch a whiff of it. It is some sort of herb, but I don’t recognize it. Before I can stop myself, I take a deeper breath. Whatever it is, it smells good. Great, I’m going to enjoy being poisoned. But even as I’m thinking that, I take several more deep breaths of the stuff.
I’m starting to feel a little light-headed. It smells so good. Maybe this is my first drug trip. I feel warm, hot even. I’m starting to drool onto the pile of herbs, only inches from my face. I’m on my hands and knees, even though I don’t remember . . . I thrust my face into the pile, try to inhale it, try to eat it.
There are no words for what happens next.